If you been reading this blog for more than few weeks or so, you probably know of my obsession for older computer games of the 80’s and 90’s. I’ve long looked at computer games as the perfect synthesis of my two main passions, writing and programming, and if I was more of an artist I probably would be trying to write my own indie games now.
But in the meantime I love reading about them, and for any of you who’ve been curious about why I love these games so much, you’ll be in for a treat with Dylan Holmes’ A Mind Forever Voyaging. Holmes takes an academic approach to gaming, examining both the ludic (play mechanics) of games and their narrative thrust (be it through text, cut scenes, actions of the player, etc.). But this is not a dry book. Holmes has explored every nook and cranny of these games and at times the book is as much his personal narrative of enjoyment as it is analysis.
While some might quibble with a couple of his choices (I’m not sure why we needed two Metal Gear Solids despite the shifts in tone), most of the games chosen are games I’ve played and loved. Each is an advance both in the way narrative stories are told, and in the way the player interacts with that story.
Holmes obviously loves these old games, and doesn’t automatically dismiss them because of poor graphics. But he does examine the ways in which these games succeed and fail at presenting moral choices (as in Ultima IV) apply cinematic techniques and a variety of game play (Final Fantasy VII and The Secret of Monkey Island) and the ways in which emergent game play goes beyond the expectations of the original programmers (Deus Ex).
Holmes takes a balanced approach toward games and treats them as a distinct medium. Often game analysis has either focused on the narrative elements alone (which can be lacking especially in sprawling epics like Final Fantasy VII or Shenmue) or only on gameplay (ludic) elements. While certain games definitely focus more on one than the other (the recent Unrest is almost entirely narrative driven, and games like the original Super Mario Bros. are largely ludic in their experience), the best games make good use of both techniques.
As with many video game books, Holmes is a bit of evangelist for treating games more seriously as a medium. Even in a society where games are played by people in their thirties or older, and where they make more money than some movies and books, they are still dismissed as something childish. And Holmes also addresses some of the ongoing challenges of technical requirements, and the ephemeral nature of games as compared to other media.
A movie from ten years ago can feel just as fresh (sometimes even more so if the filmmaker was particularly prescient about the future), but video games can age badly. I’d argue that anything made after about 2003 will still look good to a modern audience, though Holmes would contend this was actually a pretty fallow period for video game story telling (something I would tend to agree with given the richness of the previous decade). This makes writing sequels or ongoing series difficult, and why long running series like Final Fantasy will often reboot their narrative with each installment, keeping the same flavor of story, but not requiring experience with the previous game.
Ultimately I think this book has something to offer for both fans of games, and those curious about some of these great games they heard about growing up. While it might not convince those who dismiss games outright, Holmes does make a good case for the medium and its continued growth (and some of his own hope for the future).
You can buy this book (and others) as part of the Video Game Bundle V (on Story Bundle) for the next week or so. For $3 you get this book and three others, or for $12 you can get all eight books. I’m reading the Super Mario Bros. 2 book now and would recommend it as well.
And if you want to play any of the games Holmes writes about, fortunately they are even easier to get ahold of than they were when Holmes wrote the book a few years ago. Planetfall (as part of the Zork Bundle), Deus Ex, Ultima IV are all available on GOG (Ultima IV is free). Half Life, The Secret of Monkey Island (Special Edition) and Final Fantasy VII are available on Steam. The original Dear Esther is available on ModDB and the remake is available on Stream. Facade is available for free download here.
The Metal Gear Solids are a little harder to get a hold of and require original media (but used PS2 are still pretty easy to find to play them on). Heavy Rain is modern and should play on the PS3 or 4 and should be able to be easily found used. The original System Shock is a little more tricky (though I found my untouched copy for $1 at Half Price Books so you never know). The portable version Holmes suggests does work, though personally I find the experience is actually better from the original media. I’m really not sure about Shenmue though that might be one that is better to read about than play.
As for some of the additional gaming he mentions, Myst, Another World, Fallout, Thief, The Longest Journey, Planescape Torment, Baldur’s Gate II and Grim Fandango (next week) are available on GOG (I own all of these and like them all). Final Fantasy VIII and Half-Life 2 are on Steam.